The Knights Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in 1080, is the oldest Order of Chivalry in existence. It’s also is also the third oldest religious Order in Christendom and the only remaining offshoot of the period in history known as the Crusades.
The Order that never numbered more than a few thousand men from all over Europe, have been named “the noblest men in Christendom”. They became hospittalers, master mariners, navigators, and builders. As medical Order founded in charity they were different from what we now know of the Knights Templar.
The first guardian (founder) of the Knights Hospitaller was a man named Gerard. Gerard was given permission by the Fatimid Moslem governor during the time of the crusaders assault on Jerusalem to remain in the city when other Christians were expelled. It was, therefore, not a surprise when legends that later arose around Gerard and his hospice were the seeds from which the Order of Hospitallers grew.
When the Crusader States, established in the Middle East, suffered from a great shortage of manpower, it became clear that some kind of standing force was needed to protect the Latin Catholic pilgrims to the Holy Land by providing safe passage from bandits and raiders. The resulting action was the newly formed Order of the Knights Templar and a new militarized Order of Hospitallers. The transition from Hospice to Military Order occurred in 1113 with Gerard as the first Master.
As most of us are well aware, the clash of the Cross and the Crescent has echoed throughout the centuries and the Knights Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the order founded in charity, rose as a Military Order to grasp the sword that stuck like a bone in the throat of Islam.
The changing fortunes of the western Crusaders also affected the Hospitalers and in 1187, when Saladin captured Jerusalem the Knights moved their headquarters to Margat and then ten years later they moved to Acre. When Acre fell in 1291 they moved once again to Cyprus.
In 1309 the Hospitallers purchased the island of Rhodes where the Grand Master ruled Rhodes as an independent state exercising rights of sovereignty. Although they remained a monastic brotherhood, they were at this time more warriors in the art of naval warfare rather than Hospitallers.
About 400 years later the Hospitallers were expelled from their kingdom on Rhodes by Sultan Suleiman. In 1522, the Knights of St. John received a grant from King Charles V for the Island of Malta (the Maltese cross we know today, is actually the cross of the Knights Hospitaller).
The most popularly recorded historical event regarding the Knights of St. John is the Great Siege of Malta, in which 9000 knights defeated 40,000 Turkish Moslems. It is considered an unparalleled example of bravery and heroism. When the siege was finally over only 600 knights remained and only 10,000 Turks returned to the Golden Horn.
During their time in Malta the Hospitallers returned to their original purpose, gradually giving up warfare in favor of medical care and sovereign administration. When they lost Malta to Napoleon in 1798, it was an easy victory because the knights were old, sick and tired. It has been written that this “easy” victory was a great surprise to Napoleon.
Upon expulsion from Malta the Grand Master was only permitted to take three of the most venerable items of the Order—the splinter of the True Cross, the hand of John the Baptist, and the icon from Rhodes of Our Lady of Philermos.
Reading the history it’s easy to find high drama in the desert campaigns, sieges and naval battles in the Order’s history, but it’s important to remember that the heart of the Order has always been its Hospittaler work.
The Order of Hospittalers survives today in Protestant form and is not recognized by the Pope. One organization is the Bailliwick of Brandenburg, re-established by the King of Prussia in 1852 and supports several hospitals in Germany.
Another is the English Grand priory, re-established in 1888 by British royal charter. “Today, the monarch is its sovereign head, while the organization also controls the St. John’s Ambulance brigade and Association, plus an eye hospital in Jerusalem. The four non-Catholic Orders of St. John in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom together form an alliance.
The Hopsitallers were around at the same time as the Templers, but don’t have the glamour and mystique and attributed to the Knights Templar. I think this may be attributed to dry historical facts surrounding the Hospittalers, as opposed to the apparent lack of documented facts and extravagant and colorful speculation in connection with the Templars.
Keep in mind while reading this that it’s a blog post and is written to encourage interest in the history of the Knights of St. John. I’ll point you to a couple of interesting books and I’ve also embedded an enlightening You Tube video below.
The first book “Knights of Jerusalem” is a beautifully illustrated book about the Crusading Order of Hospittalers. The graphics alone clearly characterize the power of the Order. I do, however, question the wording in several instances, one in particular, “there is no evidence that the Hopsitallers had any role against the troublesome highland Welsh or highland Scots”. For some reason many (not all) historians have a problem acknowledging the fact that chivalric Orders also had branches in Scotland and Ireland. The book does have a bibliography, but I failed to find adequate references for further research. Nevertheless, you can’t beat the visuals.
Some texts state that The Order of the Hospitallers was introduced to Scotland during the reign of David I (1124-1153), although “The Parish of Logie History” states 1120, four years earlier, in the reign of Alexander I. And, according to a Charter in the town of St. Andrews, the Templars were established in 1160.
The second book worth a look is “The Medical Work of the Knights Hospittalers of St. John of Jerusalem”
The third book is “The Last of the Crusaders”.
I’m an affiliate of Barnes and Noble and you’ll also find these books in my “Books andNooks” page. That said, you can also purchase these books at any bookstore (online or bricks and mortar).
Please feel free to correct me if I’ve made any mistakes.
The motto of the order everywhere is:
“PRO FIDE, PRO UTILITATE HOMINUM
“FOR THE FAITH AND IN THE SERVICE OF HUMANITY””
Click on Knights Hospitallers of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem-- the Order’s website
Also, please click on the You Tube video below for an enlightening experience: